https://www.npr.org/2023/11/13/1212767277/maryanne-trump-barry-dead says

Years before her brother became president, Barry wrote in a 2006 immigration case that judges had too little leeway to evaluate who should get to remain in the U.S. because of rigid laws that force "knee-jerk" decisions.

If laws are rigid and don't give judges much leeway, why does that lead to forcing knee-jerk decisions?

knee-jerk means automatic and unthinking. Doesn't that mean not being limited by laws, and therefore having a lot of leeway?


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    A knee-jerk situation allows little or (usually) no leeway whatsoever. If your knee jerks by reflex, you did not choose whether, when, or how strongly your knee jerked. The term comes from the classic reflex demonstration where a person's knee is struck with an instrument resembling a rubber hammer. The response is outside the person's control. Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 10:04
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    In context, it's an "unusual" (awkward, inappropriate) metaphoric usage. Knee-jerk reactions are caused by being taken unawares / surprised and/or being [contemptuously] unwilling to give due consideration [to an issue]. Those are hardly credible reasons for why judges don't exercise much leeway when ruling on immigration cases, so to call their decisions "knee-jerk reactions" doesn't make a lot of sense to me. They're perfectly familiar with such cases, since they often hear them, and it's their job to give them due consideration. They just have little leeway, is all. Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 11:45
  • @FumbleFingers - Exactly. It's pejorative. A knee-jerk reaction is one which ought not to have happened; the implication being that the appropriate amount of thought or consideration was not done. Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 12:11
  • @MichaelHarvey: I don't understand what you're telling me. Do you think the cited usage is "natural", or are you agreeing with me that it's stylistically weak phrasing? How does the fact of laws being relatively inflexible make judges naturally careless of their duties? Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 12:22
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    @MichaelHarvey: oic. Yes, you're quite right that "knee-jerk reaction" is (as usual) intended to be pejorative. But the reason it's clumsy is because Barry doesn't seem to know whether she's taking a poke at (lazy) judges or (inflexible) laws. And of course, judges don't make the laws (that's what politicians and presidents do), so it kinda matters where she's pinning the blame. Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 12:38

1 Answer 1


Yes, knee-jerk means automatic and unthinking - so judges had to apply the law rigidly. "A gets to stay because he fulfils the right conditions; B cannot stay because she doesn't."

Mrs Barry suggested that judges should have more leeway to say "Even though B doesn't fulfil all the conditions, I have decided to permit her to stay because [of mitigating circumstances]".

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